A letter to America: Thanks for saving the manual sports car

U.S. manual fans helped convince Porsche to stick with the stick

  • Image Credit: Dan Trent; Porsche
Our contributor Dan Trent lives in that far-off island across the pond where Jaguars rove the land. In this column, he reconsiders his opinions about the American relationship to manual transmissions.

In my snooty European way, I used to assume American drivers couldn't cope with anything more sophisticated than a three-speed slushbox, while we more sophisticated types on the Continent were the true masters of heel-toe heroism and other traditional driving skills. Then automatic transmissions got better, supercar manufacturers became fixated with the motorsport associations of paddle-shifted gearboxes and, within a generation, stick-shift performance cars had seemingly vanished off the automotive map.

BMW is a perfect example: In Europe, the E60 M5 was only ever sold with the jerky SMG gearbox, its F10 successor with a more efficient and reliable dual clutch. Both were sufficiently fast, talented and desirable that we never really protested. And then we heard you could still buy manual versions of both in the U.S. Though the 2018 M5 has now gone two-pedal-only, you can still buy an M6 Gran Coupe with a stick, which we never got in Europe. And there we were thinking you didn't even know what a clutch pedal was for!

Manual diehards were left with few options, and when the 991 GT3 arrived as a PDK-only, it felt like the game was up. Porsche had made the GT3 ... easy. Those of us who'd subjected our long-suffering passengers to fumbled attempts at rev-matching and eventually graduated to bona fide hotshoe status (at least in our heads) had suddenly lost our hero car. Where the manual-only GT3 had once been a self-selecting means of separating those who could drive from those who couldn't, now anyone could hop in a GT3 and look like a driving god.

Porsche must have sensed disquiet in the ranks of hardened GT fans. Director of GT cars Andreas Preuninger was placed on YouTube to explain his PDK epiphany and how a dual-clutch transmission could still offer the emotional connection we all wanted, how paddle shifters were the way forward and how a two-pedal GT3 was the logical road-going expression of his department's motorsport mentality.

And yet, here we are now with a second-generation 991 GT3 with the option of a manual transmission. Preuninger implied he'd staked his reputation on it being a success, and if take-up wasn't as hoped, he'd have some explaining to do. Just the other week at Geneva, the about-face from the previous PDK-or-the-highway stance was dramatic: Preuninger and vice president of motorsport and GT cars Frank Walliser were beaming with delight at customer response, most notably in the U.S., where two-thirds of second-generation GT3s have been ordered with the stick option.

"We had several bets around the company and some bottles of wine have changed hands!" laughed Walliser when asked about how this fit with expectations.

"We're very happy we succeeded our own internal evaluations," added Preuninger. "The market clearly shows the need for a manual transmission; we were bold and daring enough to offer one. The success gives us the right and we will continue to do so for as long as possible."

Porsche is at pains to point out it isn't purely a U.S.-led demand inspiring this apparent U-turn. And having tested the water with the manual-only Cayman GT4 and 911 R and been blown away by hype-driven demand, it's clear the business case was still there. But the buying power of the American market has to be a consideration, and without that groundswell of support for the manual transmission I reckon we'd be in the same situation as we are with Ferrari, Lamborghini and others. The R8 has lost its charismatic gated manual, Alfa Romeo launched the 4C as a dual-clutch-only and the supposedly purist-focused Alpine A110 is the same. Lotus and Aston Martin are among the small number of brands sticking by stick, but the fact Porsche has responded to demand offers real hope for those of us who like changing gear ourselves.

Having just been lucky enough to cover the best part of 800 miles in a manual GT3, I can only count myself among them. I'd reluctantly bought the line that the PDK was an appropriate match for the latest high-revving GT motor. It will remain the only option in the RS, too. After driving both first-gen versions, I'd even publicly eaten my own words and admitted that — perhaps — a PDK GT Porsche wasn't evil incarnate after all.

Second into third gear in the 4.0-liter GT3 is enough to have me once again beating the drum, though. Selecting the ratio yourself, feeling the physical sensation of gears engaging through the shifter and savoring the mesmerising sweep of the rev counter toward that 9,000-rpm redline is my kind of addiction. Ultimate control over when and how to shift is another level of connection with the car. And the knowledge that smoothly riding that wave into third gear and beyond is going to require skill, timing and a degree of expertise beyond a fingertip on a paddle is the reward I want from a car such as the GT3. If I'm chasing lap times, I'll drive a racing car. For everything else, I'll trade tenths for involvement.

So, America, thank you for making stick-shift sports cars viable again. Keen drivers everywhere owe you one.

Related Video:

Share This Photo X